Caitlin Gooch Is Promoting Youth Literacy by Encouraging Kids to Read to Horses

As the founder of Saddle Up and Read, her non-profit is hosting all kinds of equine activities for children in the state of North Carolina.

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Caitlin Gooch's story is proof that some of the best ideas come from an unwavering desire to make a change. After spending years working with children in Wendell, North Carolina, Gooch noticed that kids across different age groups just didn't want to read. She did some research on a local, state, and national level, and realized just how staggering the literacy gap is in the United States. "Black children compared to their white peers were very far behind in reading—and the debt is large," she explains, citing statistics by the Economic Policy Institute. "That was really disheartening; [if] kids aren't reading, what is their future going to look like?"

As a mother of three herself—with her fourth child currently on the way—Gooch wanted to do something to help the next generation love reading as much as she does. So, in 2017, Gooch founded Saddle Up and Read, a non-profit that enlists horses to encourage the youth to read.

portrait of caitlin gooch of saddle up
Courtesy of Caitlin Gooch

An Equestrian Edge

Admittedly, books and horses might seem like an unexpected pairing to the uninitiated, but for Gooch, who grew up with horses, it was a no-brainer. "The kids I work with always wanted to know more about my horses," she explains. "They always wanted to see my phone because I had so many pictures and videos of them. So, why not share that with my community?"

Once she had her moment of clarity, Gooch partnered with her local library to host a reading contest. "If the kids came and checked out three or more books, then [the library] wrote their names on a paper and put it in a little box," she explains. "At the end of the month, they picked five kids, who won a trip to [the farm.]" Over one hundred kids were entered into the preliminary raffle, which showed Gooch that her hunch was right: books and horses are a winning combination.

A Trail to Success

With Saddle Up and Read, Gooch visits local schools or libraries on her horses to get the youth excited about reading. She also works with the community to organize book drives and reading challenges. Or, if the children want to sharpen their skills, they can attend barn readings, where they help groom horses and even read to their new, four-legged friends. Gooch shares that there's something about the horses non-judgmental nature that gives children the confidence to turn that page. "There [was] one little girl [who] read for 30 minutes to my horse who just recently passed away," she shares. "Her mother said that that is the longest that she has seen her read."

In addition to her assortment of programs, Gooch is using Saddle Up and Read to diversify the often white-washed world of cowboys and cowgirls. "I had realized that I wanted to find books that have more representation with Black equestrians," she adds. By sharing the stories of Bob Lemmons and Mary Fields, Gooch is showing the next generation that they can be anything they want to be—or read.

The Path Forward

With so much local success and national attention, Gooch is constantly asked about expanding Saddle Up and Read to other regions. However, the entrepreneur is happy to take things one trot at a time. "There have been so many inquiries—from Alaska to South Africa—for people who want chapters," she shares. "In the future, we definitely will. But, for right now, I want to continue to build something I can pass on [to other chapters.]"

In a world of hustle culture and instant gratification, it can be easy to put your work-life balance on a precarious tilt. But—as an entrepreneur, wife, and mother—Gooch believes that rest days are the key to running your own business. (And, yes, that means using those rest days for rest.) "You're not going to feel like burnout is going to be around the corner," adds Gooch. "You'll be able to be true to yourself and your vision because you won't have a fogged-up brain from being burnt out."

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